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Looking for Launch Alternatives in Animation

Karen Raugust looks at how animators are increasingly turning to venues such as print publishing and mobile phones to debut properties ultimately destined for film and television.

Patrick the Wolf Boy is only one of the dozens of comicbook properties that Platinum Studios has in development around Hollywood. © Platinum Studios.

Patrick the Wolf Boy is only one of the dozens of comicbook properties that Platinum Studios has in development around Hollywood. © Platinum Studios.

Many animators are looking toward alternative venues to introduce new properties, either as steppingstones to television or film, or as ends in themselves. Of course, alternative platforms, from online series and videogames to comic strips and storybooks, have long served as a starting point for properties later seen on TV or the big screen. But their value is growing. In particular, animators are increasingly looking at print publishing and mobile platforms as viable launch pads for new properties.

Story Development

Print publishing, encompassing comicbooks, comic strips, storybooks, novels and the like, offers animators a key benefit in that it allows them to develop and showcase their properties storylines and characters. To publish something requires that the idea has been thought out, says Nancy Cushing-Jones, a partner at Broadthink, an agency that has teamed with actor/author John Lithgow to extend his childrens book properties into other media platforms.

You can create a really rich world around the characters, adds Scott Rosenberg, chairman of Platinum Studios, which holds the rights to more than 2,500 comicbook characters from its own library and those of publishers around the world, and has developed several for film and television. [Comics] are unique in that they allow for the reinvention of the characters as often as the writers want to do it. That history helps fans accept new iterations such as TVs Smallville, an innovative twist on the Superman comicbook franchise on the big and small screens. Platinum has a partnership with The Shop Productions to create 3D CG films based on some of its properties, including Bonesaw, Dylan Dog: The Fourth Kingdom and Patrick the Wolf Boy.

Comicbooks layered, complex storylines and characters even lead to entertainment vehicles inspired not by the main protagonists, but by interesting details or secondary characters. For Mal Chance, a film pitch tied to a Spanish comicbook, Platinum mined one paragraph at the end of the comic as the jumping-off point for an entire movie.

Publishing can provide similar benefits to creators of concepts originating in less story-driven media as it can to creators of first-time concepts. When Foundation 9 Entertainment was showing its property Death Jr. to game publishers the Konami-published PSP game debuted in 2005 it decided to self-publish a comicbook to use as a sales tool. Someone suggested, since we referenced an underground comic vibe to the game, and the world, that we actually create a comic, says Chris Charla, exec producer at Foundation 9.

This was a brilliant idea, Charla reports. Not only did it enable us to flesh out more ideas about the game world, but it was a great marketing tool. Being able to give someone a comic lets them instantly become immersed in the world, without having to sit through a long-winded pitch or PowerPoint presentation. Early on, it was great to show potential game publishers, and after distributing it at ComicCon, we were able to see that tons of people dug the character it wasnt just us. And of course, as we worked through the comic, it helped us flesh out the world and the backstory of the game, and really added more depth. The initial publication attracted the interest of Image Comics, which subsequently released a three-issue series that has been collected into a trade paperback.

Death Jr. is being developed for an anime-style TV series by Madhouse Studios. The success of the comic and the game have definitely proven the potential of the property a ton, and that has really helped on the animation side, Charla says. In fact, its caused us to widen the scope of what were planning, which is pretty cool!

Death, Jr. and Naruto show how comics provide a dynamic visual tool to selling properties to other mediums. Death, Jr. © 2005 Backbone Ent. Naruto © VIZ Media.

Death, Jr. and Naruto show how comics provide a dynamic visual tool to selling properties to other mediums. Death, Jr. © 2005 Backbone Ent. Naruto © VIZ Media.

Marketing Benefits

As the Death Jr. example shows, publishing brings other valuable attributes aside from story and character development. Comicbooks and fiction tend to attract loyal fans, for example, and the ongoing availability of books and comics allows fans interest to stay strong over time, rather than being tied solely to movie or TV events.

Yet the fan bases for TV and published versions of the same property are not entirely congruent. Its not a 100% crossover, reports Liza Coppola, vp sales and marketing at manga publisher VIZ Media. With [VIZs property] Inuyasha, lots of fans of the manga wont ever see it on Cartoon Network, and the same thing the other way around. VIZ tends to establish its properties in the U.S. (as in Japan) first through manga which appeals more to the core fans who are aware of a property already, thanks to buzz from Japan before expanding to television, which attracts a more mainstream viewership. The sub-sect of fans who know something is cool in Japan dont necessarily turn to Cartoon Network, Kids WB and Jetix, Coppola says. Its a little different audience.

In addition to establishing a fan base, publishing can help prove a propertys commercial viability. [Publishing] establishes a track record for the content, explains Cushing-Jones. If sales are respectable, thats a very helpful tool in obtaining an entertainment deal of any kind.

The success of VIZs Naruto manga program all the volumes since the first, released in August 2003, have hit the fiction bestseller lists helped generate enthusiasm for that property on Cartoon Network, where it debuted in September 2005. It also helped attract a number of consumer products licensees, including Mattel, to Naruto, according to Coppola.

Another advantage, important from both a legal and marketing standpoint, according to Cushing-Jones, is that publishing, establishes ownership of the intellectual content for the creator of that content, and puts the person or company in a better ownership position should they eventually enter into a film, television or other media agreement.

One initiative formed specifically to pair animators and book publishing is Bolder Media, a joint venture between Fred Seiberts Frederator Studios and licensing agency Mixed Media Group. Bolder Media licensed Random House for an imprint called Bolder Books for Boys and Girls, which is scheduled to launch in spring 2007 with a list of animator-created childrens books. As producers, were always in a struggle to figure out a new way to develop material, says Seibert, who, like many in the animation business, loves books. We thought this might be a new way to excite development executives. One of the Bolder properties, Wow, Wow Wubsy, has been sold to Nick Jr. for a fall 2006 debut.

Seibert explains that Bolder Books, with its exclusive focus on animators as authors, helps overcome one big challenge facing executives involved in translating books to the screen. Book publishing and animation are very different, albeit related, arts, and authors sometimes resist the compromises necessary to bring their characters alive through animation. If you make books with animators, you have a built-in showrunner who understands how characters translate into the new medium, Seibert says, adding, [TV] executives tend to be skeptical of artists who write. But a book proves that heres a wonderful artist and a wonderful writer.

Undercover Brother was one of the first webtoons to make the big leap to the silver screen. © Urban Ent.

Undercover Brother was one of the first webtoons to make the big leap to the silver screen. © Urban Ent.

Other Launch Possibilities

Print publishing is not the only potential launch pad for television and film properties. Many movies and TV series have come from the realm of videogames (e.g., Tomb Raider) and the Internet (Undercover Brother), to name just two possibilities. A relatively new electronic platform is the mobile phone, where more original content is beginning to appear. If popular enough, these properties can move on to TV or film. AT Merchandise, the global licensing agent for the European mobile sensation Crazy Frog (a.k.a. The Annoying Thing) is in talks to expand that character into traditional media, for example.

Like publishing, platforms such as mobile phones and the Internet can help sustain a property after TV exposure as well as serving as a launch platform. Blue Rocket Productions introduced its series Hoota & Snoz as TV interstitials in 2000 and ultimately produced 82 cartoons that have been broadcast in 115 countries. The company subsequently created a Hoota & Snoz broadband site. We have used the Web as a way of building and sustaining interest in Hoota & Snoz, says Blue Rockets David Gurney. In Australia, the Hoota & Snoz site is embedded in ABCs Rollercoaster site and it remains extremely popular even after a few years. During the last three years, Blue Rocket has sold the series globally for distribution on mobile phones.

Properties built through online and mobile channels do not always lend themselves as naturally to story-driven long-form entertainment vehicles as published properties do. I dont think exposure through mobile and web is a particularly good pathway to getting a show on TV unless its hugely successful, Gurney says. The best approach to getting something on TV is always to have killer scripts.

But, he points out, Mobile is a good way of testing a characters popularity. Unlike the Web, if people want something on mobile they have to pay for it. If they like your character enough to buy it, thats a pretty good indicator because theres a massive amount of mobile content out there and its hard to make your content stand out in the crowd. He cautions, however, If your character is popular, thats a step towards a TV show, but the script is king and thats where the real effort needs to go during development.

Creating a Multimedia Property

Although many creators have ultimate designs on television or film when creating a new property and view mobile or print publishing deals along the way as a means to that end experts counsel them to focus on the original medium as if it were the final goal. Its an almost impossible task to have anything become successful in any medium, Seibert stresses. For that reason, a creator should focus fully on the creation of the best book or other work of art possible, he says, rather than trying to create something intended to cross over into multiple media.

Cushing-Jones agrees. Generally speaking, my advice would be first to focus on the original idea, to make the idea as good as one possibly can in terms of story, she says. Focus first on the story, and then only secondarily, once you feel youve written or drawn the best story, look at whether it works in one medium or across several.

If the original property is well thought out and appropriate to its debut platform, it is more likely expansion into other media will follow naturally. In theory, everything were doing is infinitely translatable to any medium, Seibert says. What we feel is that the element that makes things work, whether in a book, a TV show, or even a doll, is great characters. Theyre great characters, and great stories, no matter what the medium is.

Not all properties need to work on all levels. For Platinum, according to Rosenberg, a property has to work as a comic, thats the first test. Company executives then evaluate whether it has potential for exposure in television, film, videogames, online or mobile and many do. But if we just like it as a comic, well take it.

The main point is that each platform has to work independently, no matter where the property originates. With Death Jr., Charla reports, Of course, the buzz the comic generated helped create awareness of the game, but we didnt look at it as a licensed spin-off or anything. We want the comic to stand on its own as a great comic, and the game to stand on its own as a great game.

Before Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones dressed in black suits, comicbook fans had been reading the alien-themed adventures of Men in Black. © Platinum Studios.

Before Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones dressed in black suits, comicbook fans had been reading the alien-themed adventures of Men in Black. © Platinum Studios.

The Pitch Process

Just as the creative process should focus on the medium at hand, so should the pitch process. The core of the pitch is essentially the same, says Cushing-Jones. But it has to be fashioned to fit the audience.

Seibert agrees. In TV, the kiss of death is talking about the t-shirts [when pitching a show]. In our case, if [creators] think of the book as a steppingstone to TV, I become much less interested. The thing that excites us is the great character in the book.

In fact, it is nearly as difficult for a creator to break through in print publishing or mobile as it is in TV or film. But many companies, including both Bolder Books and Platinum Studios, are open to properties from first-time creators. We welcome submissions, says Rosenberg of Platinum, which offers its guidelines for pitching comics and TV/film properties on its website. Were not sales-motivated, were story-motivated. We dont look at how successful [a property] is or isnt.

As an example of how a brand-new creation can succeed, Rosenberg cites Men in Black, which he oversaw at his previous company, Malibu Comics (now owned by Marvel), and sold to Sony for film and television. A first-time creator submitted the original comic, and the films were some of the most successful comicbook-based movies ever, even though the comic didnt rank among Malibus top-sellers. Weve found zero correlation between comicbook sales and sales at the box office, Rosenberg reports.

Although new properties can break through in any medium, a track record can certainly attract interest. I think success in one medium helps to drive sales in another, Gurney says. The success of Hoota & Snoz on TV, of course, has helped it to succeed on mobile, but this is not always the case. There have been many very popular and big-name cartoons for TV that absolutely bombed on mobile. Brand names arent a guarantee of sales in this arena.

I think that when you are looking at how you are going to get your show out there you need to be able to take a cold look at it and see if it really suits mobile or not, Gurney continues. You cant make a silk purse out of a sows ear and if your show isnt right, youll do it more damage than good trying to push it into mobile.

While each medium will remain unique, more truly multimedia properties are likely to emerge as advances in technology cause various media platforms to increasingly overlap. TV, broadband and mobile are on a collision course, Gurney concludes. Even though nobody is quite sure what its going to look like once the hubcaps stop rolling around, I believe that developing (and pitching) for integrated media should be a consideration for any new project.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).